Apophasis and Permutation in the Sefer Yetzirah

I will probably sit down sometime soon and think about adding a few new categories and subcategories around the discussions of the Kabbalistic material. I’m holding off a little because I want to have a sense of the directions it is opening. For this post I want to talk a little more about the apophatic dimension of the sefirot that I see underscored in Sefer Yetzirah (SY).

This returns to some of the practice-minded implications that began this growing series of posts around the SY.

I have talked a little about how we can evacuate the sefirot themselves of the dense layers of encrusted meanings and associations that have accrued to them, an accrual which the ‘Western Magical Tradition’ has been exceptionally engaged in. At first, the difference between the two habits were subtle, but the more I read and contemplate the SY, the greater those difference become.

For example, saying that “Venus is associated with Netzach” is not initially all that different from saying that “Venus is a channel that opens to Netzach.” However, when Venus becomes a meaningful sign that can be permuted to open onto other sefirot, the difference is anything but subtle.

When we can contemplate the way in which Venus opens to Binah, or Venus opens to Tifaret, Venus becomes less of a chain of associations and much more of a key. What doors do the keys of Venus open in Binah? How do we find the door? How do we synchronize the key and the door? What happens when we dramatically re-order the primary channels (e.g., the Ophites or the Slavonic material) we use to access the sefirotic mysteries?

This seems simultaneoulsy more and less magical than the tradition of locating comparably fixed meanings within the sefirot. It is moreso, because the work has everything to do with the difficult to explain sympathies between symbols, some of which we must craft for ourselves out of the materia we have available within our life.

It is also less so, because the work loses much of its egocentric quality. One of the things that makes the densely layered Kircher-style sefirot appealing is that they are something like a catalog. You can flip through them looking for the thing you want to purchase, the signs that indicate to you your desires. Here, with the evacuated sefirot, the work is more one of discovery.

The emphasis is not on what the signs of Venus mean so that you can interpret and manipulate them. Instead, you manipulate the signs and explore the depths in order to discover the spiritual resources dispensed to you from within those vessels. Or, alternately, you discover whether there is any gift for you from within a specific opening.

I mentioned that I have found the Leo-Virgo permutation useful, in part because it summons up the figure of Strength/Lust from the Hermetic codification of the Tarot’s major arcana, as well as some of its attendant resonances. What’s more, in the work of permutation, I feel like I come away with a better sense of the dynamism toward which that figure points, the capacity for the lion to rise up within the woman and the capacity for the woman to dominate the lion.

Some of the egocentric dimensions come back into the work once the discovery has been made. The doors opened reveal the gifts that you can put to use for your own ends. There is a good chance, however, that your egocentric concerns will have been transformed through that process, that you won’t want things the same way. The ethics that guided your ego may not serve you well.

This sheds some light on a problem that creeps in around many initiatory practices, not just the ones embedded within the sefirotic system: ego inflation and loss of direction. If the system does not prepare you for the transformation of your ego and will, then when the work is done, the main concepts you will have available for thinking through the work you have done will be ones formed at the more intensely egocentric dimension of experience.

The objects that preoccupy the egocentric self won’t be so appealing to the broadened will, but without a new ethos to ground that will, the most common response to the egocentric level will be a mixture of despair and superiority. Where superiority wins out, the distance between will and egocentric interest is experienced as being better than the world of egocentric interest, such that those still engaged with it are similarly beneath concern.

Where despair wins out, the egocentric objects appear only in their inadequacy to the new will. It becomes a matter of wanting something in the egocentric world to hold the new will’s attention, perhaps even obsessively. Even though the will has been transformed, it will lack direction without some education as to the new world of objects through which it moves.

5 thoughts on “Apophasis and Permutation in the Sefer Yetzirah

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